To beef, or not to beef, that seems to be the question. In the recent debate about beef and it’s impact on the environment there are two views. There are those who view cattle as greenhouse-gas belching planet destroyers, while others depict them as benevolent carbon sequestration machines. The problem is that most of these discussions overlook the most important piece of information: how was the beef you’re eating raised? How an animal was raised should be a prerequisite to any conversation. All beef is NOT created equal. Grain-fed feedlot beef has no redeeming environmental or ethical qualities, and any pro beef discussion for cattle raised in that way should end right there. Grass-fed, pasture-raised beef, when managed properly, produce positive environmental impacts, and ethically there’s no comparison to a feedlot. We can no longer allow the how to be left out of any conversation about beef, or food in general for that matter. It is big ag/big food’s ability to remove the how from the conversation that has enabled them to obscure the true cost of food, put small farms at a competitive disadvantage, socialize the environmental impact, leverage government subsidies, and reduce the LIVE in LIVEstock to nothing more than industrial widgets. Things didn’t used to be this complicated.
Our ancestors domesticated cattle about 10,000 years ago, and since then we’ve been protecting them from predators, caring for their health, and providing them with food. In exchange they’ve provided us with mobile hunger insurance. The growing season for fruits and vegetables is finite. Some years it rains too much, others it doesn’t rain at all, and sometimes locusts descend from the heavens. When that happens, you can kill an animal and feed your family. Unlike hunting where you risk returning unsuccessful and hungry, livestock are a sure thing – you know where they are. They make use of inferior land, making something from nothing. Until very recently their diets consisted of grass, a little browse (leaves, bushes, etc), and hay (dried grass provided by their farmers) for times when there wasn’t a lot of grass to eat. They harvested what was otherwise un-harvestable for us, allowing our ancestors to farm land that wasn’t farmable. Hilly, rocky, dry, or lacking fertility, it didn’t matter. To grow vegetables you need good, relatively flat, stone free soil. Only 11% of the Earth’s land is fit for growing produce, while 27% is suitable for grazing livestock.
Think of grazing livestock as mobile, self-directed, solar energy converters and stores of protein. Nearly everything they eat is a food source inaccessible to human beings. Cattle are ruminants, which means they break down their food through microbial action in specially evolved stomachs. Cattle graze, wrapping their coarse tongues around grasses, pulling and biting them off, chewing them into smaller pieces, and then swallowing them into a big kind of holding tank called the rumen. In the rumen the forage starts to be broken down by microbes. The partially fermented food (known as cud) is then regurgitated and re-chewed, which breaks the plants down even further, allowing the cattle to digest these plants.
For thousands of years our ancestors raised cattle in the same way. Then things changed. In the U.S. in the 1850’s cottonseed oil mill operators thought, “Hey, we’ve got some edible byproducts from the milling process, cattle can eat them, let’s put a bunch of cattle together and feed them this stuff.” …and the first Feedlot/CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) was born. Thankfully this practice didn’t really take hold until after the Second World War, which is really when all things agricultural started to change and give us our modern food system. Munition factories transitioned to fertilizer plants. Crops like corn, which could be heavily fertilized, grown, stored, and transported, thrived. Yields went through the roof and prices dropped. With so much cheap corn there was an incentive to find ways to use it.
Cattle came in from the fields, and went into pens where we could put the corn to em’, monitor feed conversion, and increase weight gain. Cattle aren’t meant to eat a lot of corn, but you can get them to. It will shorten their life, and negatively affect their stomach pH, allowing bacteria like E. coli to thrive where they hadn’t before. The cattle will grow fast, gaining weight quickly and cheaply. A mostly grain diet wrecks their livers, but a lot of feed and a little growth hormone helps them hit target slaughter weights before the liver gives out. With no need for room to forage you can crowd them in real tight, and there are antibiotics to help with disease brought by over-crowding and filthy conditions. In just seventy years we went from a predominately pasture-based grass system to one where 3 out of 4 cattle today pass through a feedlot, and 95% of cattle eat grain at some point in their life. It takes about 6-10 pounds of corn to produce one pound of beef. The United States is both the world’s largest corn and beef producer, which begs the question of causality or synergy.
Raising grass-fed beef is a different system all together. To manage a grass-fed herd, as I have, is a delicate balance; timing, animal stocking density, and forage length must be monitored very closely. Intensive management looks to recreate the conditions that existed for millions of years when large herds of herbivores roamed through the world’s grasslands. They evolved to travel in dense groups to protect themselves from predators (safety in numbers) resulting in short intense stays in an area, then when the herd moved on, the area had a period of rest to recover. During these grazing periods thousands of hooves supporting these heavy animals stomped, twisted, and embedded grasses, leaves, and other organic matter along with manure and urine into the soil. Breaking up soil crusts, they add organic material and nutrients to feed plants and insects, while improving water retention and helping to sequester additional carbon. Farmers looking to recreate these regenerative cycles practice a method called Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG). They carefully control grazing and monitor forage length to produce short high impact stays followed by rest, regrowth, and recovery in order to improve and restore soil health. This requires farmers to move their animals frequently, as soon as the grass has been grazed, but before it is eaten down to its roots. Timing is critical; the cattle need to eat the grass and then be able move on, without staying too long, overgrazing, and damaging the plants. Plants need to be allowed the time to regrow and replenish their root systems before being grazed again. This harvest/rest cycle adds organic material, sequesters carbon, develops strong roots, retains moisture, and prevents erosion.
The foundation of the pasture-based, restorative farming argument is that by allowing cattle to harvest plants and disrupt soil, you’re making the ecosystem healthier, stronger, and more resilient. As a result, the plants thrive, and as they thrive the land can be grazed more frequently. This improves the well-being of the plants and the soil creating a virtuous cycle. It’s the vegetation, more specifically the process of photosynthesis, which is the key. During photosynthesis plants take in carbon dioxide from the air, water from their roots, and convert sunlight (light energy) to glucose (chemical energy). It’s that process, and the carbohydrate it produces which creates the base food for all complex life on earth. During photosynthesis plants give off oxygen (thank you) and send a little carbon into the ground. They send some carbon directly down into their roots, and some in the form of organic matter (leaves, etc) which need a way into the ground. Cattle provide that way in when grazing, turning, and moving, smashing everything down into the ground where it will remain (sequestered) unless disturbed. It’s a one two climate change counterpunch. Photosynthesis pulls carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and cattle help make sure the carbon stays down for the count. Many modern agriculture practices break-up and turn-over the soil releasing of a lot of carbon. Managed grazing helps reverse some of that damage by improving the health of forage, which in turn builds healthy soil, removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it below ground.
There is no virtuous cycle created in a feedlot. Feedlots only create inexpensive beef. The efficiency of today’s industrialized feedlot system puts family farms and ranches at a tremendous financial disadvantage, and forces them to pursue a “lowest cost” production model instead of a “best practice” model. The economies of scale and operating leverage of feedlots make it very difficult for farmers to compete outside the system. The lives of cattle become compartmentalized, with farmers typically limited to one stage of the life cycle, and all the animals ultimately ending up in a feedlot. The feedlot system, just like most of the current food system, is unsustainable and far less than what we are capable of.
Unlike many professions, farming carries with it the added pressure of not only running a business, but employing family members, often the co-location of the family home, and land that may have been in the family for generations. If the transparency of how an animal was raised can’t be expressed to the consumer, then it can’t be valued, and farmers that pursue best practices are unable to receive a premium for their product. They remain at a competitive disadvantage to multinationals with unimaginable scale, efficiency, and resources. The ruthlessness of feedlots remains the standard, producing profits for the corporation, while destroying rural economies, the environment, the well-being of millions of animals, and the health of consumers. We need to get off this destructive path, but change won’t be legislated, regulated, or preached. It must be consumer lead. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Just understand the how and make the choices that are right for you. Some how’s are restorative, and others are harmful. Some how’s allow animals to live in a way that you thought was the only way when you were in the 3rd grade, other how’s will shock and disgust you. Demand information, support transparency, then make the decisions that are right for you. To beef or not to beef? That’s the question, and only you have the answer.